Heroes, Wyndhams Theatre, London

A fraternity in search of liberty
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The Independent Culture

The blunt one-word moniker also reinforces the weird sense of déjà vu, if you'll pardon my French. Is this art or is it Art? The formula is uncannily similar. Here we have three of our greatest actors (John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and Ken Stott) starring in another Parisian hit, once again translated by one of our foremost dramatists and skilfully orchestrated by a whizz-kid director (Thea Sharrock). Ken Stott even appeared in the first cast of Yasmina Reza's play. And it's the same producer, David Pugh, who is clearly hoping that lightning will strike twice in the same place. Has it obliged?

Heroes is a very different piece from Art. It trades in rueful humour and delicate shades of melancholy and is much less intellectually and emotionally substantial. I suspect that it will, nonetheless, be a hit, because it offers a similar opportunity to witness a kind of crack thespian equivalent of a Three Tenors concert.

The characters - Henri, Philippe and Gustave - gather each day on a quiet terrace (presented in a tree-lined, dramatically receding design by Robert Jones) and look out over the cemetery to the restless poplars on the hill beyond, whose ability to move about in the wind mocks the inmates' own stifling stagnation.

There's the odd echo of Waiting for Godot in this play about killing time and the desire to escape. For example, there's Beckett's trick of having a character peer into the auditorium and co-opt the audience as black-joke scenery ("Look at that view! It's superb!" "You mean the cemetery?"). But the best pieces in this genre make the situation of being stuck more widely symbolic, as when David Storey in Home subtly indicates that the eponymous asylum is a metaphor for the decline of Britain.

Here, a mad escape plan is conceived by John Hurt's excellently acted Gustave, a war hero who masks with testy fastidiousness and a brisk officer manner the anxieties brought on by severe agoraphobia.

The scheme - which involves the threesome in various comic set-pieces such as roping themselves together with a length of hosepipe - is not destined for roaring success, given that Henri (Richard Griffiths) has a gammy leg and mountainous girth, and Philippe (Ken Stott) passes out every few minutes because of a piece of shrapnel in his brain. Nor does it help that their agoraphobic leader is determined to bring along the scarcely budgeable stone dog from the terrace to whom he's taken a dotty fancy.

That kind of whimsical touch heightens our sense of the men's loneliness. Why, though, do they speak so little about their military past? Whenever Stott's earthy Philippe comes round from a fainting fit, he shouts: "We'll take 'em from the rear, Captain, we'll take 'em from the rear", but this turns out to be a memory from the bedroom rather than the trenches. Is their reticence a realistic sign of unresolved trauma or a cop-out by the dramatist?

The excellent acting does much to compensate for the inadequacies in the script, and when the writing rises to the performances, the effect is heady. There's the virtuosic passage where Hurt finds something to loathe in every month of the year, and the moment where Richard Griffiths' wondrously sweet-natured Henri sees that there's no escape, but an endless series of similar terraces.

To 14 January 2006 (0870 950 0925)

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